I read a lot of books. Most of them are good. Some are crap. Some are amazing. When I read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown I marked it down in a new category; “life changing.” Among the many great insights she provides about the power of vulnerability, I wanted to share this nugget because it is specifically about leadership.
The Courage to be Vulnerable
I recently game a talk at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. The program, which pairs thirty-five to forty elite undergraduate students with mentors and offers comprehensive business training, is ranked as the leading undergrad entrepreneurship program in the United States. I was asked to talk to the students about vulnerability and the power of story.
During the Q&A session after my talk, one of the students asked me a question that I’m sure is often on the minds of people when I talk about vulnerability. He said, “I can see how vulnerability is important, but I’m in sales and I don’t get what that looks like. Does being vulnerable mean that if a customer asks me a question about a product and I don’t know the answer, I just say what I’m thinking: ‘I’m new and I really don’t know what I’m doing?’”
The students, who were all turned around listening to him, turned back in their chairs and looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, that seems lame. Are we really suppose to do that?”
My answer was no. And yes. In that scenario vulnerability is recognizing and owning that you don’t know something; it’s looking the customer in the eye and saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find out. I want to make sure you have the correct information.” I explained that the unwillingness to engage with the vulnerability of not knowing often leads to making excuses, dodging the question, or – worst-case scenario- bullshitting. That’s the deathblow in any relationship, and the one thing I’ve learned from talking to people who sell for a living is that sales is all about relationships…
…In business school, faith communities – any system, even families – we can tell a lot about how people engage with vulnerability by observing how often and how openly you hear people saying:
I don’t know
I need help
I’d like to give it a shot
It’s important to me
I disagree – can we talk about it?
It didn’t work, but I learned a lot
Yes, I did it
Here’s what I need
Here’s how I feel
I played a part in that
I accept responsibility for that
I’m here for you
I want to help
Let’s move on
That means a lot to me
For leaders, vulnerability often looks and feels like discomfort. In his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin writes, “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable…It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. Its uncomfortable to resit the urge to settle. When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.”
As I looked over the data and read through my notes from the interviews I’ve done with leaders, I wondered what students would say to teachers and what teachers would say to their principals if they had the opportunity to ask for the leadership they needed. I wondered what the customer service representative would say to his boss and what she might ask of her boss. What do we want people to know about us and what do we need from them?
As I started writing down the answers to these questions, I realized that they sounded like a mandate; a manifesto. Here’s what emerged from these questions:
The Daring Greatly Leadership Manifesto
To the CEOS and teachers. To the principals and the managers. To the politicians, community leaders, and decision-makers:
We want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire. We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement. We crave purpose, and we have a deep desire to create and contribute. We want to take risks, embrace our vulnerabilities, and be courageous. When learning and working are dehumanized – when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform – we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion.
What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us. Feedback is a function of respect; when you don’t have honest conversations with us about our strengths and our opportunities for growth, we question our contributions and your commitment.
Above all else, we ask that you show up, let yourself be seen, and be courageous. Dare greatly with us.
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (pages 206-207, 210-212)
As leaders too often we lead with our head and not our hearts. We come off as rational and cold. We say all the right things, but somehow just don’t seem to connect or inspire people. We keep our guard up, we deflect, we rationalize, and we bullshit. We scheme the politics and our relationships. We don’t want to be seen trying. We manage our image and our reputation. And the whole time we think we’re being clever. The truth is we are scared to death. We are scared of being judged. We are scared of showing up and just being ourselves. We’re scared of being seen. Fearless on the outside and scared to death on the inside. Why would others trust us when we don’t even trust ourselves?